By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — In case you forgot — and nobody could blame you at this point — Major League Baseball had itself a bit of a controversy this winter. The 2017 world-champion Astros? They did some sign stealing. And the 2018 world-champion Red Sox? You guessed it. Sign stealing.

At least, that’s what was alleged. For the Red Sox, in reporting from The Athletic on Jan. 7, three members of the 2018 Red Sox said that some players visited the replay room during game to gain information on opponents’ sign sequences during the regular season. MLB began an investigation. More than 100 days later, on April 22, MLB finally announced the findings of that investigation. The team was punished … but quite lightly.

To be clear, the Astros’ situation and the Red Sox’ situation are very, very different. The Astros were picking off signs in real time, with nobody on base, and banging a trash barrel in a a dugout tunnel to communicate to the batter in real time what pitch was coming. Even though MLB commissioner Rob Manfred preposterously said that he was unable to determine if such an alert would have proven to be helpful to the Astros … it … obviously would have been.

With the Red Sox, it was different. The allegations said that players would pop in to the video room and get some information from the replay operator on what sequencing the opponents were using when runners were on second base. In simplest possible terms, that would mean the replay operator would tell players that the third sign flashed by the catcher was the live one. (The real sequence would be more complicated, obviously.) That would allow players on second base to relay the sign to the batter. Provided it was correct, the hitter would then benefit from knowing which pitch was coming. That process would be helpful, sure, but considering that stealing sign sequences before or after games is legal, it’s a different degree than what the Astros did.

OK, got it.

Yet even with all of that being established, Manfred’s rulings are just all over the place.

Consider …

–For the Astros, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were banned from baseball for a year. Even though neither Luhnow or Hinch were deemed to have known about or participated in the trash can banging scheme, they were held accountable. (Later reporting showed that Luhnow did know about some sign stealing systems and that members of the front office established a system known as “Codebreaker,” which torpedoed any reliability in any investigative findings from Manfred and MLB.)

–For the Red Sox, then-president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager Alex Cora were not punished at all.

–For the Astros, several lower level employees were not punished directly by MLB. Later reports indicated that director of advanced information Tom Kock-Weser and director of team operations Derek Vigoa were heavily involved in the system. Manfred did not punish them.

–For the Red Sox, video replay operator J.T. Watkins was singled out as the lone individual member of the organization to face any punishment. Watkins is a member of the Red Sox’ advanced scouting staff, and part of his job entailed legally decoding sign sequences, but not during games. He is not in charge of any personnel, yet he is the one being punished.

–For the Astros, a narrative was framed around then-bench coach Alex Cora and then-veteran DH Carlos Beltran as the bullies who forced their younger, feeble, helpless little teammates to cheat. It was an absurd tale to weave, that adult men were coerced into participating in a trash-barrel-banging sign-stealing scheme. But Cora and Beltran at the very least had some level of ranking compared to younger, less-established members of the roster.

–For the Red Sox, the video replay operator is apparently the only one to have done anything wrong. Even though players, by necessity, would have had to seek out and utilize illegal information for the video replay operator’s actions to have been deemed illegal, zero players were indicated to have even used or definitely gotten that information from Watkins. Manfred also went out of his way to say that even if he did have the authority to punish Red Sox players, he didn’t find anything that would have compelled him to punish any Red Sox players. (So what are we doing here, Mr. Manfred?)

Who knew the video replay operator carried so much weight among big league ballplayers?

It’s all just … a mess. The fact that players had immunity clouded the investigations from the get-go. Punishing managers and GMs while not so much as laying a gentle finger on one single player in Houston was preposterous all along. Similarly, relying on players’ suspicions instead of concrete evidence in Boston makes the three-month investigative process all the more confusing.

You want to hear another perplexing thing? I’ll share with you another perplexing thing.

Here’s what Manfred said about Hinch in Houston (emphasis added by me):

“As the person with responsibility for managing his players and coaches, there simply is no justification for Hinch’s failure to act. If Hinch was unsure about how to handle the situation, it was his responsibility to bring the issue to the attention of Luhnow. Hinch expressed much contrition both to me and my investigators for allowing the conduct to continue. Although I appreciate Hinch’s remorsefulness, I must hold him accountable for the conduct of his team, particularly since he had full knowledge of the conduct and chose to allow it to continue throughout the 2017 Postseason.”

Fair enough. The buck stops here. No excuses. No wiggle room. Guilty is guilty. Got it.

Now, let’s see what Manfred said about Cora in Boston:

“I do not find that then-manager Alex Cora … knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis. … While I will not impose additional discipline on Cora as a result of the conduct engaged in by Watkins (because I do not find that he was aware of it), I do note that Cora did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season.”

Obviously, different infractions, different scenarios, etc., etc., etc. Understood. But … in mid-January, Manfred determined that Cora was the grand maestro of the Astros’ sign-stealing operation. As a result, Manfred banned Cora from baseball for a full season.

Yet three months later, Manfred determined that Cora did not properly communicate sign-stealing rules to Red Sox players in 2018 — the year after he was allegedly the mastermind of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme — and the punishment is … nothing at all?

All while holding Hinch responsible for all things happening with his team?

Sure. Why not? Who cares? Move along.

(Manfred also weighed the Apple watch situation of 2017 when considering the Red Sox’ offenses, a standard which didn’t seem to apply to Cora.)

None of this is to suggest that Manfred should have punished Cora for what did or didn’t take place in Boston. It is more an indication that fingering Cora and Beltran — aka the only members of the 2017 Astros who are no longer active players — as the only people responsible for Houston’s transgressions was absurd. It’s also to point out that a zero-tolerance order for Hinch and Luhnow does not appear to have applied to anyone working for Boston. Only the replay operator must pay.

This is, truly, a bizarre conclusion to a bizarre scenario — a scenario which MLB essentially created and failed to address on its own. Prior to the 2018 playoffs, one single person was tasked with monitoring the replay rooms of both the home and away teams, in addition to having other in-game responsibilities. At the same time, in the case of the Red Sox, the advanced scout in charge of legally decoding sign sequences was also placed in front of live monitors during games, with easy communication to players. Rule changes lagged far, farrrrr behind technological advancements, with the league constantly playing catch-up.

The end result was that some teams lived on the periphery of the rules. The Astros seemed to have taken the most advantage, and for that, they were punished severely. The Red Sox merely did what prrrrrobably most if not every team was doing, and they were only punished, really, because word got out in a story on The Athletic.

Along the way, MLB granted immunity to players while punishing an executive whom MLB deemed to not have been involved at all (even though later reporting indicated that the executive was in fact involved or at least aware). While the difference between the Astros’ offenses and Red Sox’ offenses is significant, the difference between a full-year ban from baseball (Hinch) and no punishment whatsoever (Cora) is incalculable.

Additionally, hanging Beltran out to dry with the Mets showed MLB didn’t really care about consequences — fair or unfair — so long as members of the MLBPA weren’t affected or upset. A commissioner does not want to upset the union.

Failing to tie up loose ends — like, say, Tom Koch-Weser and the Codebreaker system, which only came to light thanks to the reporting of The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond — showed that either MLB’s investigation was tremendously sloppy, or that Manfred purposefully omitted information that he did not want the public to know. (Hint: The answer lies behind door number two.)

And punishing Watkins while also noting that no players would be punished even if punishing players were allowed?

It’s enough to make you wonder what in the world Manfred set out to accomplish with his two investigations.

Unlike last time, Manfred probably won’t face much heat. The world is dealing with much bigger problems, and the sport is trying to figure out how to exist in some capacity this year, so Manfred won’t be forced to endure long press conferences at spring training sites, nor will he have to sit down for 45-minute interviews with ESPN. He won’t have to suffer the extreme secondhand embarrassment that was no doubt felt while watching Jim Crane and the Astros’ charade at the open of spring training.

And that’s … well, it’s fine. We’re on to more important matters.

But when it comes to writing the final word on the two sign-stealing investigations in the winter (and spring) of 2020, the record should show that consistency, believability, and integrity were all sorely lacking from MLB’s work. Should another sign-stealing accusation arise in some media outlet, it’s impossible to forecast precisely how Manfred would treat it.

For years and years and years, as technology evolved, MLB dragged its feet trying to uphold a level of integrity, constantly trying to play catch-up, to the point where the situation grew slightly out of control. After getting two kicks at the can, Manfred’s attempts to govern those situations have followed the same pattern.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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